DP Jody Lee Lipes Reflects On “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”
Jody Lee Lipes (photo by Lacey Terrell/Sony Pictures)
Cinematographer returns to feature arena where he collaborates with long-time friend, director Marielle Heller
  • LOS ANGELES
  • --

”I read the script and had one of those cliché moments when you say, ‘I have to do this story.’ It was personal for me with all the family stuff in there that drew me in. I wanted to help tell this story,” said cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes in reference to A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Sony Pictures). Lipes had been away from feature films for about three years, and felt compelled to return for the chance to delve into this chapter in the life of Fred Rogers, creator and host of the beloved PBS children’s series Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood

Directed by Marielle Heller, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood stars Tom Hanks as Rogers. Based on actual events, the film introduces us to Lloyd Vogel, a cynical magazine reporter (portrayed by Matthew Rhys; in real life the journalist was Tom Junod of Esquire) who reluctantly agrees to profile Rogers. Over time, Rogers’ optimism and genuine goodness impact Vogel, his family and outlook on life. We, of course, also connect with the profoundly positive, life-affirming influence Rogers had on youngsters through his TV show.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood also afforded Lipes the opportunity to collaborate with Heller, a long-time friend. The two first met at the Sundance Lab where they were both directors. Lipes went on to establish himself as a DP, with such feature credits as writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, writer-director Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, and writer-director Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture. For the latter, Lipes earned a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Cinematography in 2011. On the TV side, Lipes lensed multiple episodes of Dunham’s acclaimed HBO series Girls, while also staying active in commercials (including AT&T’s moving “It Can Wait” directed by Frederic Planchon) and music videos (Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby,” Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop The Feeling”).

Meanwhile Heller has helmed three features, debuting with The Diary of a Teenage Girl followed by Can You Ever Forgive Me? (with Oscar-nominated performances by Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant) and now A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

“The right person to shoot this film”
When her cinematographer on The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Brandon Trost, was unavailable because he was directing his first film, Heller gravitated to Lipes for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood since they shared a great rapport and a similar film language. Citing Lipes’ talent, his being a young father and having a love for Mr. Rogers, Heller told SHOOT that Lipes as it turned out “was so the right person to shoot this film.” She also pointed to Lipes’ attention to detail and drive to achieve authenticity as exemplified in his efforts to secure Ikegami video studio cameras like those back in the day that were used to shoot Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood

Lipes said he wanted to capture how that show really felt and looked. He watched hours and hours of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood so that he would speak the language of the show, including such unconventional practices as minimal editing, and long lingering overhead shots of a book as Rogers would read from it to his audience. The lack of cutting, said Lipes, preserved the feeling of the show being shot live, keeping its young viewers very much in the moment. 

Lipes also painstakingly recreated the how to/factory visit films often presented in “Picture Picture” fashion. In A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood a prime example was a video about magazine publishing so viewers could get a sense of how reporter Vogel’s stories were put on the printed page. Lipes worked with longtime camera operator colleague Sam Ellison on this style of video. Lipes also brought into the mix camera operators who actually worked on those segments for Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.

Beyond the scenes from Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood shot with Ikegamis, the choice of camera for everyday life, including that of Vogel along with his family, was the ARRI Alexa. Lipes opted to intentionally shoot in “a lower quality” super 16 mode. “It feels a little more like low resolution, a little bit more like an older form of video,” he explained, adding that the look helped to reinforce the feel of a simpler time, more akin to what the period film called for.

At the same time the old video cameras that shot Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood had a relevance in Vogel’s life, specifically during his dream sequence in the movie. “We used the format we shot Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood on,” explained Lipes, “to further confuse his (Vogel’s) perception of reality versus the TV show.”

Telling the story of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood also had a positive effect on Lipes. “I felt like the script was so strong, the trajectory of the emotional journey so clear to me, my relationship with Mari (Heller) so healthy that I felt free to make clear visual decisions, making what I saw as the right choices to reinforce the story in a particular way. It made me fall in love with doing this again.”

As for what’s next, Lipes has lensed an HBO miniseries, I Know This Much Is True, starring Mark Ruffalo, Kathryn Hahn, Melissa Leo and Juliette Lewis--and directed by Derek Cianfrance, the feature filmmaker (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines, The Light Between Oceans) who won the DGA Award for commercials in 2017 (his ad roost being RadicalMedia).

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